Streams

Can I Interest You in a Car, Congressman?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 - 11:30 AM

(Washington, DC - David Schultz, WAMU News) Car dealerships, as downtown businesses go, aren't great neighbors.  They bring grease-stained service centers, and large, open asphalt lots to blocks.  At night, they turn strips of development into dark, foot traffic-free areas.  Adding something like that to Washington D.C. would be unthinkable, you might think. This city guards its scenic vistas and grand avenues like some grizzlies guard their cubs.

So then why is the D.C. Mayor's office not only supporting but also facilitating a car company's bid to open a dealership on K and 11th Streets NW - right in the heart of downtown D.C., just a few blocks from the White House?

Because the car company is Tesla.

Tesla is not your typical car company. Founded in Silicon Valley, Calif. seven years ago, it makes luxury sports cars that run on fully electric motors.

Tesla's cars aren't hybrids; they use no gasoline, only an A/C current. But don't fall prey to the "electric cars are for wusses" stereotype. The engine on a Tesla Roadster packs a walloping 288 horses.  Since Teslas don't have gears that need shifting, they can accelerate as fast if not faster than Ferraris or Porches, as I can fully attest.

Tesla doesn't try to conceal - or even deemphasize - its lack of affordability. The base price for a Roadster is $100,000.  Tesla is in the process of developing a sedan, according to sales manager Shaun Phillips.  That will retail for no less than $40,000.

Consequently, Tesla markets its cars to a very specific demographic. Phillips says it locates its dealerships only in cities with lots of highly-educated, environmentally-conscious, extremely affluent residents.  Think Boston, New York City, Palo Alto, Boulder, etc.

D.C. certainly fits that bill. But Phillips says there's another reason Tesla wants to move into the market here: it wants to market its cars to legislators.

Tesla is on the vanguard of the nascent electric car industry, an industry it believes is poised for a boom. But the company will need help from policy makers if it wishes to expand - more tax breaks for electric car buyers, and more car charging stations on streets.

That explains why Tesla wants to open a dealership so close to the country's halls of power. And the local D.C. government has no inclination to block it.

Valerie Santos, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says Tesla's dealership will be nothing more than a small showroom - no service center, no car lot.  She says the Tesla dealership will be more like an Apple Store in that it could become a destination spot for wishful thinkers wanting to take a test drive.

Tesla just hopes some of those wishful thinkers will go back to work after their test drives and cast pro-electric car votes.

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